Celebration, Florida: How Disney’s ‘Community of Tomorrow’ Became a Total Nightmare
In 2004, Disney sold the downtown of utopian Celebration, Florida, to a private equity firm. Residents say it took their money and let the city rot around them.
When Cookie Kelly first heard about Celebration, Florida, Walt Disney’s master-planned town just a stone’s throw away from Magic Kingdom, she was drawn to it like Pinocchio to Pleasure Island. The highly municipal-coded hamlet, built in 1995 to look like 1955, was billed as an antidote to the chain-ridden sprawl of suburban America. In Celebration, there were no fast-casual franchises, no hulking commercial trucks, no visual reminders of poverty. Every lawn was cut to code; every fence was freshly painted. The local school was basically Summerhill. Litter had a lifespan of 15 seconds. Buildings from the post office to the movie theater were designed by the 1980s’ best architects. “I was completely a goner,” Kelly said. “I came down, and they gave me a mimosa, and sat me outside, and I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”
In 1998, Kelly and her husband built a house in Celebration. Five feet tall with heels on, Kelly took a job as a “cast member,” as all Disney employees are called, playing characters at the parks. Per company policy, Kelly isn’t supposed to specify who she played. (“Let’s just say, I’m a ‘good friend’ of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy,” Kelly said. “That’s Disney code.”) The couple loved Celebration so much they kept buying new houses there, fixing them up, and moving again. Eventually, Kelly started selling Celebration real estate herself. “I wanted people to get it,” she said. “I didn’t want people coming to Celebration, particularly at that time, and going, ‘Oh this is cute.’ This is not cute. This is a fucking miracle.”
But in 2016, when Kelly started a blog about Celebration called Cookie Kelly Blog, she wanted readers to get something else. Things in town had changed. The cracks in Celebration’s utopian façade had been evident for years: there were major segregation issues; the school, which didn’t assign homework, grades, or even books, was losing students by the dozens; the recession had bankrupted local businesses and pushed homes to foreclosure; and in one brutal week of 2010, the town experienced its first murder, followed by a police shootout with another man who barricaded himself in a house for 14 hours and shot himself in the head. Those were bad. But Kelly had a different concern—specifically, that in 2004, Disney had sold Celebration’s business sector, called Town Center, to a private firm called Lexin Capital, run by a New York City real estate developer named Metin Negrin, who had, Kelly and a subsequent lawsuit from the town’s residents alleged, let the place fall to pieces and started bleeding the residents dry.
In 2016, the Town Center residents sued Lexin, alleging chronic negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and damages of $15 million to $20 million. They claimed the firm had refinanced the place twice, zapped the equity, failed to keep track of their monthly condo maintenance dues, and left the buildings to rot, leak, and collapse around the homeowners inside (Negrin denies any structural collapse). In a transcript of a town meeting submitted to the court, one resident, an asthmatic, described thick black mold stretching from the ceiling to floor of his closet. His staircase had grown so rickety it had to be closed off. Another complained that, after reporting a leak for six straight years, his condo had become “uninhabitable,” forcing him to move out. A third, the mother of three small girls, said her building often swayed beneath her feet. “Why?” she said. “Because the building leaked since 2008. The water has disintegrated the building, causing mold. The termites have come and gone. There’s nothing left for them to eat. “
Nearly four years later, the two sides are still in battle and barely closer to resolution. The firm has denied the charges in court, alleging that the residents mismanaged their money and owe the firm millions for repairs. The case has grown into an expansive, Jarndyce v Jarndyce-scale battle over ownership, neglect, and the right to fix a roof. In January, the two will face off for a hearing, and without a decisive judgement, they’re set for trial in November of next year—the first Celebration will have ever had. “Without overdoing the fairytale metaphor,” Kelly wrote in her first blog post, “we find ourselves stunned awake, Rip Van Winkle-esque. Abandoned by the Disney Brand, abandoned by the Disney attorneys and their well-crafted clauses, the visible effects of neglect and mismanagement are displayed in the decay and disarray, rotting beams and mold, leaking roofs, and [the] plummeting values of our homes.”
In the movie version of Celebration, the story might start in 1966, when Walt Disney released a 25-minute video outlining plans for what he called The Florida Project. It would be a theme park much like Disneyland, but on an even grander scale—so vast that people were already calling it “a whole new Disney world.” Standing by a wall of cartoonish maps, Disney rattled off ambitious ideas for the place, including an “airport of the future,” a 1,000-acre industrial park, and a high-speed transit system. But at “the heart of everything,” Disney said, was a town: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. This town of the future, the animator explained, would never be completed. It would be a model town for America, living in a constant “state of becoming,” forever testing new ideas.
Later that year, Disney died. The EPCOT plan was shelved, though Disney did name one of their theme parks, EPCOT Center, in its honor. But in 1994, the company resurrected the idea, annexing some 4,900 acres of land and breaking ground on what would become Celebration. The intentional community was an experiment in New Urbanism, a neo-traditional planning movement that sought a return to early American small town life by designing compact, walkable cities with diverse housing options, mixed local businesses, and abundant public space. Celebration’s architects believed design could “orchestrate community.” In November of 1995, when some 5,000 people arrived to bid on the first houses, they found themselves in a town that looked a little like Missouri—squarish, with a small tail of land stretching out to the southeast. The 11-square-mile area eventually comprised seven residential villages, a lake, ample greenspace, and a downtown called Town Center, sprinkled with restaurants and shops.
Everything about Celebration telegraphed cozy familiarity. Brochures depicted a quasi-fantastical realm of home-cooked meals, traditional family values, and G-rated movies. The civic buildings were designed by famous architects: the theater by Cesar Pelli, town hall by Philip Johnson, the post office by Michael Graves, the bank by Robert Venturi, to name only a few. The fonts on every street sign, store front, park-trail marker, fountain, and even manhole cover came special order from top design firm Pentagram. The homes were built according to a detailed guide book, which laid out options for four types of lots (Estate, Cottage, Village, and Townhouse) and six styles of architecture (Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French Normandy). Residents who wanted to experiment with landscaping had to consult a second guide called the Celebration Florida Friendly© Pattern Book. For Disney devotees, Celebration was a dream made real. When the first 350 homes went up for sale, so many people wanted to buy one that Celebration had to host a lottery.
The town also attracted skepticism. Celebration came to represent a loaded nostalgia for a very specific kind of America, a place so pure it might have never existed, or if it did, only for a privileged few. The architecture drew cries of “inauthenticity,” a shallow signifier of good design. Others found the place eerily spotless, like a set for The Stepford Wives or Edward Scissorhands. “Creepy” was a common refrain. A Gizmodo article about that creepiness chronicled the media obsession, from which this article is not absolved, in documenting Celebration’s crash courses with crime, human error, and general mediocrity: “Pixie Dust Loses Magic as Foreclosures Slam Utopian Disney Town,” reported Bloomberg. “Murder and suicide in Celebration, the perfect town built by Disney,” said the Telegraph. “The dark heart of Disney's dream town: Celebration has wife-swapping, suicide, vandals ... and now even a brutal murder,” yelped the Daily Mail.
There was something suspect, the article argued, about anything that sold itself as perfect. It implied a hidden dark side lurking beneath each Arcadian-inspired front porch. Advocates argued, as designer Michael Beirut put it in a defense of Celebration, that nostalgia was merely a “Trojan Horse [to] deliver their radical planning ideas: small lots, mixed use, limited parking.” Celebration was an improvement on the car-centric corridors outside its borders. But the fact remained that community is hard to build top-down. When corporations control towns, they can weigh in on which movies run in the local theater (no Tarantino). They can code your house down to the trim of your chimney. They can also sell the downtown to a private equity firm, stand back, and watch the world-famous buildings they commissioned fall into disrepair—which, incidentally, is what happened in 2004, when Disney sold Town Center to a New York City firm called Lexin Capital, and its founder, Metin Negrin.
In the mid-1980s, Metin Negrin, a Turkish econ student at New York University’s Stern School of Business, found himself in a situation familiar to most college kids: strapped for cash. To help pay his bills, Negrin and a friend co-founded a company. Their profession of choice: painting houses. The house-painting business was tough: low pay, lots of labor. But according to a Turk of America article naming Negrin among the 50 Most Influential Turkish Americans of 2014, the student “soon met the power of marketing.” Negrin, realizing a “designer-sounding name would better appeal to NYC clients,” decided to name the company: Le Painter.
When Negrin later began working in real estate, his work followed a similar pattern: selling low-value assets at a markup. At LaSalle Investment Management, according to Turk of America, his major contribution was convincing the Resolution Trust Corporation, a government entity that reclaimed money from bankrupt people by selling their land and belongings, to offer shares in the repossessed property to private partners. Later, Negrin teamed up with billionaire real estate developer and “pioneer of the modern shopping mall concept,” A. Alfred Taubman, to start The Athena Group—another business that bought defaulted loans and properties, then sold them at a markup. But in 2002, Taubman, whom Negrin cites as his “mentor,” was convicted of a six-year price-fixing scheme, sentenced to a year in prison, and fined a cool $7.5 million, plus the costs of his own incarceration. That same year, Negrin decided to leave Athena Group and start his own business. He called it Lexin Capital.
When Negrin, now a trim middle-aged man who resembles Nathan Fielder, arrived in Celebration, he didn’t stray far from the private-equity playbook. He inked the deal with Disney in January of 2004, buying Town Center for approximately $22 million, according to sources familiar with the sales documents. Immediately after, Negrin set up a series of business entities, all with confusingly similar names: Lexin Capital; Lexin Celebration, LLC ; Lexin Celebration Commercial, LLC; Lexin Capital; and Lexin Reality, LLC all had stakes in the downtown. In May of 2005, according to documents, Lexin Celebration Commercial secured a promissory note with Greenwich Capital Financial Products, refinancing the town and pulling out $23 million in equity.
Lexin also established something called the Town Center Foundation. It was a master association to oversee the entire downtown. It was also a clever piece of legal maneuvering. They had acquired 21 buildings in Celebration: nine of them were commercial buildings, filled with high-end shops and restaurants; two were residential; and ten were “mixed use” buildings—meaning they contained both stores and apartments. Lexin converted all the apartments into condominiums, and sold them off for approximately $20 million, according to sources familiar with the sales documents. In total, there were 105 units, enough space for around 350 residents, who moved in shortly after. But when Lexin formed the Foundation, they filed it in accordance with a Florida law called Statute 617, meaning it operated as a corporate non-profit, not a homeowner’s association, even though it would oversee 105 homes (Negrin maintains that this was not an unusual move). The homeowners had their own organization—the Town Center Condominium Association—but the Foundation, run by a board of three Lexin employees, held the majority power and could pass measures unanimously without consulting the residents.
At first, Kelly said, no one noticed the red flags. Celebration’s buildings were not exactly in peak condition. They’d been built by third-party contractors under a punishing time crunch. Shoddy craftsmanship was a running theme, though Disney was always aggressive on maintenance. “Town Center was spick and polished,” Kelly said. But soon, windows, walls, pipes, roofs, balconies, staircases—structural elements you’ve never even thought of—started breaking down and they stayed broken for years. “I started to look back, and I was like, why isn’t this being done? They own this. This should matter to them. That was in my more naive days,” Kelly said. “What has been the truth is that from the moment Metin Negrin bought this town, it was his golden ticket. He had no intention of doing anything other than maximizing his income and not putting a nickel into the town.”
When Laurel Rousseau, a mother and homeschool teacher, moved to Celebration in the fall of 2011, she didn’t fit the bill of the average resident. For one, the former travel agent didn’t care much for Disney. She lived there almost by chance. The year prior, Rousseau, her husband and their kids had uprooted their life in Maine, moved to New York City, and regretted it instantly. Desperate to leave their cramped uptown apartment, they followed Rousseau’s father south. Celebration had seemed like a reprieve from the monotonous sprawl of central Florida, and post-recession, condos that once sold for $300,000 were going for $100,000. Rousseau bought a two-bedroom unit in Town Center. She figured they could stay for a little while, figuring out their next move. “It almost seemed,” she recalled with audible irony, “like a no-risk kind of thing.”
As soon as they moved in, the condo’s roof began to leak. No big deal for Rousseau. Relieved to have left New York, she set about to get it fixed. She contacted the condo manager. The manager told her to talk to the Town Center Foundation. When she reached out to the Foundation, they didn’t respond. Rousseau was confused. How did you get things fixed around here? She couldn’t fix it herself, because of the peculiarities of Celebration condominium law. The residents own only the interiors of their units. Anything inside, they can change. Anything else, anything structural—like say, a roof—they can’t touch without owner approval. “Think of it like the Titanic,” Rousseau said. “We are on a ship going out of control. But all we own is our little box in it and the air rights to get to our unit. That is it. Nothing else.”
After some pestering, Rousseau eventually got a response from Lexin, but not a solution. She started digging into public documents and contracts. She wrote to The Celebration Company, the Disney subsidiary still involved in parts of the town. She joined the Board of the Town Center Condominium Association. Eventually she became its president. At this point, problems like Rousseau’s were widespread across Town Center—so much so that the Celebration Nonresidential Owners Association, a governing body still largely controlled by Disney, had begun tense negotiations with Lexin. But the homeowners were barred from those meetings. “There was literally no information,” she said. “It was this dark black hole where they gave you the runaround until you went insane or gave up.”
By 2014, Rousseau’s roof was still leaking when the homeowners started to hear about something called a “special assessment” for building repairs. All the condo residents pay monthly dues, or “assessments,” to the Foundation to cover expenses laid out in an annual budget. A special assessment meant the money would come outside of the budget—i.e. they’d have to pay more. The residents were concerned. They had been paying assessments to the Town Center Foundation since 2005—approximately $26,000 each month total, according to Rousseau. Where had that money gone?
Near the end of the year, Rousseau and others started to see a man around town checking out windows, walls, and roofs. In early 2015, they learned the Foundation had hired an architect named Dan Dixon to do an inspection of Town Center. Soon, they began to see construction in certain parts of town. Not a lot, just on two buildings. But it was a big change after 11 years of inaction. Under other circumstances, the residents might have found this cause for, uh, celebration. Instead, they were concerned. They had not seen any reports from Dixon’s inspection. What work needed to be done? How much would it cost? And who would be paying? They suspected that Lexin had taken their money and planned to stiff them with the bill. They were also worried that the ongoing construction could destroy evidence they might need to bring a lawsuit. In April of 2015, Rousseau and her neighbors’ suspicion only deepened. That month, Negrin refinanced the town again, this time with Morgan Stanley, pulling out an additional $13 million in equity.
In February of 2016, the tensions and much of the actual property reached a breaking point. Negrin called a meeting with the Town Center Foundation, invited all the residents, and announced his intent to charge the town a $4.1 million assessment, the first of three such fees, to repair the buildings in Town Center. Everyone’s portion would be determined by their square footage. For Rousseau, whose family lives in a two-bedroom condo and relies on a single income, that meant three payments of $30,000—nearly the cost of her condo. She wasn’t alone. “Please, understand that we do not want to walk away from our homes,” one resident said in a transcript of the meeting. “But an assessment that could grow to $100,000 each? If I had $100,000 in the bank account, I wouldn’t have bought a $200,000 condo.”
The outcry was so forceful, Negrin backed off the $4.1 million charge. But the meeting had confirmed the residents’ suspicions. The Condo Association, led by Rousseau, began digging for information. They hired their own architects to inspect the property, and wanted permission to investigate the damaged sites. Their lawyers requested copies of Dixon’s inspection report and all maintenance records. They wanted financial documents, a paper trail of where their money had gone, how it had been spent, what had been repaired. “Show us the numbers,” one resident said in a transcript, submitted as discovery in the case. “Show us the numbers back to day one. Show us where you spent money and where you haven’t.”
The Foundation granted some of their requests, but only after extensive back and forth documented in court records (Negrin denies ignoring requests). Only Rousseau was allowed to inspect the construction sites, not the experts. They only got a summary of the inspection report. The financials and the maintenance records never came. Instead, the Foundation countered with their own accusation—that residents had mismanaged $222,311 in reserve funding back in 2005, which they could have used for repairs (the Condo Association said they returned that money by check in two lump sums between 2008 and 2009, for reasons that will bear out in litigation). In April of 2016, after their requests went largely unanswered, the Condo Association delivered on a longstanding threat: they sued.
In the complaint, the Condo Association asserted twelve charges of chronic negligence and breach of fiduciary duty, requesting $15-20 million in damages. At first, the residents’ primary goal in the lawsuit was to obtain records and access to the construction sites for their inspectors. But over time, the case grew into a distinctly American dispute, over what the Condo Association argues was a subtle form of taxation without representation. During discovery for the case, the condo owners learned that the Foundation, which could pass measures without telling residents, had wielded that power more often than they thought. According to documents the residents later filed with the court, in January of 2015, Negrin had loaned the Foundation $89,000 to pay for repairs—effectively loaning money to a board staffed by his employees—without informing any of the owners. By December of 2017, Negrin had increased that loan to more than $2 million. The residents still had no idea. When the loan came up in discovery, Negrin revealed that the residents would have to repay it with interest beginning January 1, 2020 (Negrin maintains the loan was not secret, but made in good faith). Documents also showed that on another occasion, in November of 2016, the Board passed an $800,000 assessment to pay for roof repairs without a vote from residents, though they would bear the brunt of the cost.
In early 2019, the residents pushed back. They filed a motion arguing that the Foundation had been set up in direct violation of residential rights, allowing the corporation to steamroll locals on major financial decisions. They asked the court to apply something called Statute 720, which would force the Foundation to operate as a Homeowner’s Association, giving the residents greater say in how their town was run. In April, a judge agreed, enforcing the 720 statute. Negrin has disputed the decision. Now, the two are sparring over when the ruling goes into effect. Does it start now? Or does it apply retroactively to everything the Foundation has ever done? In January, two weeks after residents are supposed to start paying back Negrin’s alleged secret loan, a judge will decide. In the meantime, Celebration lives in uncertainty.
When Disney first laid out his plan for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, he painted it as a model of American capitalism. “EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world,” Disney said, “for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” In a sense, it always has been—a corporate-built town constructed too quickly and too cheaply, sold off to unsuspecting owners under the guise of utopia while nurturing the same social issues that exist everywhere else. These past few years, as real estate developers eat up neighborhoods and private equity shutters sports websites, hospitals, and big-box retailers across the country, the imagination of American free enterprise merely entered a new phase. As Town Center residents battle their new corporate landlords, Celebration is still keeping Disney’s dream alive, just perhaps not the way he had hoped.
An earlier version of this article stated that the AMC theatre in Celebration was called AMC Pleasure Island. It was actually called AMC Celebration. This article has also been updated throughout to reflect comments from Negrin submitted after publication.